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What Federalism Can Teach about Obamacare

What Federalism Can Teach about Obamacare

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After two years of open debate, this week the United Sates Supreme Court is hearing three days of legal arguments about the constitutionality of President Obama’s mandated healthcare overhaul. A ruling could come as soon as June of this year.

In the two years since the bill was signed, there have been two narratives. One is that “Obamacare” was a great victory for America, and the other has been an attribution of government encroachment. The deciding factor to these different reactions should center on the proper relationship between state governments and the federal government. Additionally, a few legal questions follow: Does the national government have the right to force an individual mandate? Can the federal government force individuals to purchase health insurance?

Legally, it all depends, but the idea of Federalism sets us upon a path to answer those questions. Federalism is the system by which states are guaranteed a protected existence and the authority to make final decisions on many governmental activities and programs.

How this relates to an Obama healthcare mandate and the states can be addressed through legal and historical precedence. James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 46 that the state and federal governments “are in fact but different agents and trustees of the people, constituted with different powers.”

In Federalist No. 28, Hamilton explained citizens could use one against the other to keep the system in balance. “If the rights are invaded by either, they can make use of the other as the instrument of regress.”

Dozens of states have done just that by appealing to their sovereignty, canonized in the 10th Amendment. America’s political system is not a unitary system for good reason. Our Constitution and system of government were derived from the beliefs and dispositions of early America. A careful agreement was made from the beginning that distributed power well enough to fit a “large and extended Republic,” provided, of course, we could maintain the agreement. Together, state and local units of government do their part to establish decentralization, and they would cease to be federal units the moment they stop existing independent of the national government.

Whether the 10th Amendment or the 5th Amendment will hold up in the courts against Article I of the Constitution, and the “necessary and proper” clause, remains to be seen. However, calling on Madison once more, he stated in Federalist No. 45, “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite.”

Obamacare will certainly challenge the nation over whether it wants a national system to be dependent on Washington or rely on dual federalism that protects freedom. Every American generation has dealt — either successfully or unsuccessfully — with this issue. As President Wilson observed, “Because it is a question of growth, every successive state of our political and economical development gives it a new aspect, makes it a new question.”

Indeed, and what an opportunity to answer it.


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